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Friendship. Drama. Romance. Losing. Horror. Fun. Winning. Enmity.

Yeah. A Team Policy partnership can mean a lot of things.

If you’ve been debating since you were ten, or just started yesterday, one thing you need to know is this: your partner is your greatest asset. They double your brain power, research capacity, and logic acumen. But they can also be your biggest challenge. A bad partnership is no fun for anyone, so people go to great lengths to find just the right match. So what are you looking for when searching for a teammate? What are the factors that should be considered? To help you out, here’s a basic primer on picking a partner.

We’ll start with some things to avoid. You should not base a partnership solely on skill or experience. It shouldn’t even be your primary consideration. Typically, every TPer wants to debate with someone who is at or above their skill level, but there are a couple of problems with this.

First, some novices come roaring out of the gate and completely blow the field away. If you’ve completely written off a first-year debater as someone who wouldn’t be ‘at your level’, you’d be missing out on completely untapped potential.

Second, debaters almost always overestimate their own prowess. A second-year debater will feel that they deserve someone who’s in their third year. Someone who’s been to Nationals will want a partner who (in their mind) can get to Nationals too. But guys. Think about it. It’s a literal impossibility for everyone to be happy using this paradigm. And using skill or experience as your basis for a partnership usually stems from a self-focused mindset—you want someone who is good enough for you, who can help you achieve your goals. That’s the opposite of what’s required in a good partnership, both in debate and in the rest of life.

So instead, here are a few questions to ask when deciding a TP pairing.

Question 1 – What are their strengths and weaknesses?

You don’t want someone exactly like you. The biggest conflict often comes when two people have the same areas of strength and the same shortcomings. Put two strong leaders together, and they’ll never agree on anything, argue over which Neg strategy to run, and end up contradicting each other in the middle of a round. Two behind-the-scenes brainiacs will have great content, but may never be able to present it in a compelling way to a judge.

I know when you find someone who is the same age, same experience level, and same personality type, it’s tempting to assume, ‘We’d be perfect!’ But that isn’t necessarily true. In fact, someone who is strong where you are weak would probably be a better fit. Someone who balances out your charisma with an even-keeled steadiness would be more effective. Someone who has the research power that you have yet to develop would be a wiser choice.

Question 2 – What’s their commitment level?

Everyone can grow and change over the course of the season. That’s why choosing a partner based on skill and/or experience isn’t an accurate measure of what to look for. Instead, check on their goals for the season. Do they want to just do practice rounds in club, and aren’t planning on competing? Or do they want to go to four qualifiers and two national opens? How many hours of prep are they willing to put into the year? There’s no minimum requirement, and goodness knows you can survive on very little research, but the fact remains: you get out of it what you put in. This will be a crucial factor. Is your partner a match for your goals and work ethic? If not, they may not be a good fit, regardless of how much experience they have.

Question 3 – What kind of standards do they have?

In the end, the touchiest issues you’ll face with your partner will be questions of ethics. You may disagree about which Inherency point to drop so you don’t contradict your third Disadvantage, but at the end of the day, that’s just a preference. If you or your partner has strong standards or convictions about ethical questions, those are far more important. Make sure you’re on the same page with your partner about issues like sharing information and briefs, taking other teams to JO, running squirrel cases, etc.

Question 4 – What are the lessons to be learned?

It’s easy to get your heart set on your ideal TP partner, but you should try to stay open to other options. Even if you’re paired with someone who wasn’t your first choice, there are still a few lessons you can learn from the experience.

Lesson 1 – How to work with someone different than you.

In most of life, you can’t just walk away from conflict. You’ll be forced to deal with difficult people, and you’ll have to deal with the issues that arise. Having a debate partner with whom you don’t see eye to eye can be a valuable opportunity for learning to handle those conflicts effectively. Check out this post for some tips on how to do this.

Lesson 2 – Learn new skills.

Maybe in the past, you had a partner who covered most of the research for your team. This year, you’re paired with someone who really isn’t comfortable with that, so you have to step up your game. Or maybe you have to take a speaker position that you’ve never done before. It may be rough at first, but eventually, you’ll grow in that area that once was a challenge for you.

Lesson 3 – Own your debate knowledge.

When you debate with someone new to TP, you’re forced to have a thorough understanding of why you do what you do. Check out our post on how being paired with someone with less experience actually makes you a better debater.

How do you find a partner?

Before you do anything else, make sure you learn your club’s policy on this issue. Stances vary widely from one club to another, and it’s absolutely crucial that you check with them before talking to someone about pairing together. Clubs operate on a pseudo social contract system. In a sense, you give up some of your rights in order to benefit the whole club (and yourself by extension). If you’re part of a club, you’re committed to it and to its values, so make sure you honor that.

Once you’ve cleared it with them, do your homework. Look at more than just experience level. Check for priorities, goals, time commitment, ethics, research capability, school workload—all the things that will impact the efficacy of this partnership.

Next, make sure you communicate clearly. You may be in discussion with two or three other debaters to see if a partnership with one of them will work out. If this is the case, you have to be up front about it. If one person is counting on you as a partner, but you’re keeping your options open, then you risk hurting that person both on a personal and academic level. Avoid that unnecessary complication by being extremely clear with everyone involved.

Finally, be open to other options. Don’t pick the one dream partner that you can’t live without. What you see as a perfect fit may not be. God may have unexpected blessings and lessons where you least expect. Be hypersensitive to what He may be calling you to do.

There is no algorithm for the perfect partnership. Even if you do everything perfectly, no pairing will be completely smooth sailing. Debate rounds are stressful. They bring out the worst in us. But they also don’t have to look like a bunch of purple minions squabbling over the last banana.

You can ditch the drama, the horror, and the enmity, and just go for the whole ‘positive learning experience’ thing instead.

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